All entries for December 2010
December 29, 2010
Christmas should be holiday time, and possibly inspire some peace. Not so at Fiat Mirafiori in Turin (a factory built by Mussolini and Agnelli to be the largest in the world), where the separate 'Christmas agreement' signed by Fim-Cisl and Uilm-Uil is the biggest disruption yet to post-war Italian industrial relations.
As I had written in my blog "Polacchizzati", and more extensively in academic papers, Fiat is using with an unprecedented consistency the threat of "coercive comparisons" amongst all its locations to achieve not just some wage concessions (we are used to that), but a strategic advantage through a radical change of the rules of the game. Specifically, Fiat's comparisons tend to be with Poland, and Polish factories are used as something I had called myself Trojan Horse for the Americanization of Europe (in the small industrial relations circles I am occasionally referred to as somebody who invented the Trojan Horse, but I must say somebody else had - a long time ago).
This is particularly true for Fiat as its CEO Marchionne, an Italo-American manager, is using the threats to implement an American style of industrial relations. The core of the dispute, to put it simply, is the exit of Fiat from all national and sector-level agreements, and the implementation of its own representation rules whereby only unions that sign company agreements have representation rights. The largest union, Fiom-Cgil, having not signed, would suddenly disappear from the company. Even in the bleakest cold-war times of anti-unionism and Cgil marginalisation, in the 1950s, the Fiom had its representation within the Commissione Interna (works council). Now it would not.
Important lawyers such as Pietro Ichino repeat that this is perfectly legal in Italy, consistent with the Italian constitution, and the Statute of Worker Rights of 1970 (the Italian equivalent of the German Betriebsverfassung, workplace constitution) as modified by a referendum in 1995. Unlike in France, multi-employer collective agreements in Italy have no erga-omnes validity, except for minimum wages, so Fiat is free to opt out from the 1993 national agreement that reformed employee representation through the creation of works councils called RSU. And after the law was modified by a referendum in 1995, workplace union rights are only for the unions that signed agreements - regardless of their representativity.
While this interpretation may be technically correct, it appears to me that excluding the largest union from recognition is against the spirit, if not the letter, of the Italian constitution of 1948, strongly rooted in the principle of democracy: at the time it was self-evident that unions signing any collective agreements would include the largest and most representative unions - otherwise, even fascist-era agreements, in Ichino's thought, should be considered as 'constitutional'... Moreover, the exclusion also goes against the often-forgotten European Directive on the Information and Consultation of Employees of 2001: something Italy initially even neglected to transpose, believing that Italian rules were already sufficient.... but we now see that it was enough for an outsider to arrive to disrupt all the Italian rules. The Trojan Horse has entred the constitutional walls of Italian industrial relations.
In theory a reformist solution is possible: new legal regulations to face the changed situation. France, against the odds, recently changed its regulations and introduced a principle of representativeness. In Germany, a country whose industrial relations in the 1990s and 2000s were seen as unstoppably eroding, I have recently witnessed a number of 'fixes', from the joint attempt of the employer association and the largest union confederation DGB to defend Tarifeinheit (bargaining unity) through a criterion of representativeness, to the introduction of legal minimum wages and the limitation of Ohne-Tarif, i.e. company opt-out from national agreements. American-style disruption does not suit well European societies, as even French and German employers have admitted. Will also Italy find a fix, defending representativeness as a core democratic principle? Or will industrial relations erosion symbolyse a broader erosion of Italian democracy? Interesting times ahead.
(PS: I have returned safely from Berlin, but not before being stuck overnight in Paris by the after-effects of the snow disruptions. Air France put me in a hotel in Disneyland, a place I had sworn never to put my feet in. Merde, why not on the Champs Elisées?)
December 22, 2010
Airports are open, so my three-month stay in Berlin ends today. Time for some summary reflections on this city, starting from the obvious: 3 months is not nearly enough to experience a city as large, varied and complex as Berlin.
Arm aber sexy
“Poor but sexy” is Berliners’ self-portrayal, starting from mayor Wowereit who, as a gay, can avoid the charge of sexism the use of the S word would involve in more PC countries. It’s an honest self-portrayal. Berlin is by far the cheapest capital of western Europe, and cheaper even than some eastern European capitals – after all, it still is a half-Eastern European city, and the other half wasn’t even a capital until quite recently. A near-20% unemployment rate does moderate prices. In all other European capitals the majority tends to be money-rich but time-poor, with an effect of hurry, selfishness, arrogance. Berlin is different: people have time rather than money, good taste rather than expensive cloths, bikes rather than SUV, spend the week-end in the parks and lakes rather than on foreign breaks.
It may change. The completely redeveloped Mitte may have some great new architecture, but is already undistinguishable from any downtown in Europe or USA. And in 2009 Berlin has overtaken Rome as third most-visited city in Europe (after Paris and London): demand is bound to increase prices and distort habits. But Berlin, while continuously changing, also develops forms of resistance. Gradual gentrification in once-popular neighbourhoods (first Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte, then Kreuzberg, now North Neukölln…) meets opposition, and so does tourism. The radical Left’s magazine Interim has launched, for 2011, an anti-tourism campaign with sabotage and disruption of hotels and tourist sights. Even if this materialises, if you visit Berlin in 2011 you have two solutions: first, do what is logic anyway, throw the Lonely Planet into the bin and stay off the beaten track, thereby avoiding the protests; alternatively, accept that the radical Left is itself a Berlin attraction, and join in, maybe asking passer-byes to take souvenir pictures of you throwing eggs at the sightseeing bus under the Brandenburger Tor.
Not only Currywurst
Germans share with Brits a dubious record: nations that spend the smallest share of their income on food. So none comes to Germany expecting gastronomic revelations. As an advantage over the Brits, Germans at least have their practical, efficient functionality: so food at least is real, not junk. I like the markets with, in Autumn, the central European wild mushrooms, root vegetables, apples & pears, smoked freshwater fish (eel!), cooked meat (Blutwurst!). And bakeries, despite the expansion of chains, are mostly still real bakeries making a large variety of excellent bread (alongside less inspired cakes): my street has seven bakers, more than the whole of Coventry. Imbiss kiosks, with their shared standing tables, offer more reasonable food in a more social setting than fast food chains or British fish & chips – even if I believe the Berlin’s pride “currywurst” should have remained what it originally was: a mistake, not a recipe.
Restaurants and bars tend to offer reasonable, reliable, comfortable fare for very reasonable prices – from the traditional potato soup, Eisbein (pork hock) and calve liver, to, increasingly, healthier things. Execution and service tend to be very skilled, thanks to the German vocational training system, and waiters strike the right mid-way between Italian overfriendliness and French stuffyness. In the huge surrounding parks you can also have idyllic near-wilderness experiences in outposts such as the Alte Fischerhütte or the Forsthaus Paulsborn. Italian restaurants are very popular, also thanks to the large Italian ex-Gastarbeiter population, but having tried a few I was just confirmed in my belief that yes, you can eat fantastic Italian food outside Italy, but only if you pay for it more than the price of a ticket to Italy. A newer and more interesting fashion is Austrian food, with cafes, patisseries, delicatessen shops and restaurants: try Sebastian Frank’s Horváth in Kreuzberg before it is deluged with Michelin stars. For more ambitious German food, in minimalistic settings, “N°45” on the new-posh Kollowitzplatz (with its organic Bio-market for VIPs, equivalent of London’s Borough Market or Paris’ organic Sunday market on Bd Raspail) cooks with local, Brandenburg ingredients, extremely sophisticated techniques, but none of the obsession with presentation and concept that overburdens the nouvelle cuisine of France or Britain. So Berlin’s food is, too, “arm aber sexy”.
Angela Merkel may repeat that multiculturalism – whatever she means by it - has failed, but in Berlin, in an important aspect of European culture, it is alive and well: you can find bars to watch, with the corresponding community, food and beer, just any European football league: Italian, Turkish, English, Spanish… And when the time comes for Germany-Turkey in the Olympiastadium, the 80,000 public is evenly split between Germans and Turks, Özil scores a fine goal for Germany, and after the game the injury and arrest count is three times lower than for the average second-league Hertha game.
On the other side, while eastern Europeans and southern Europeans (including many Turks) blend in a rather lively way, in comparison with other large western European cities Berlin is still remarkably white, especially in the eastern part, except for some residual ex-DDR Vietnamese (who cook well, by the way). I hear repeatedly that blacks don’t feel welcome, also in comparison to the rest of (western) Europe. Recent research (from Bielefeld’s sociologists, as well as from Münster’s) points that Germans are more hostile to non-Europeans, Muslims and Jews (!) than the neighbouring nations – although, at least, not in an “aggressive” way: fear of the unknown more than hatred of something real. Germany‘s enviable record of not having a significant rightwing-populist party may not last for long – so far, the populist Right had little space because the Linke covered social discontent, and the FDP covered the middle classes’ – but now the FDP tax populism has imploded (in the opinion polls the party is down to 3%, from 15% last year, good omen for the British Lib-Dems), while the Linke is deeply split.
The best mean of transport in spacious, green and flat Berlin is the bicycle, but the round-the-clock public transport (also considering the large investment that was needed to link the eastern and western networks) is not bad. Or so I thought until, in November, I was informed that my monthly pass was extended for two more weeks, as a compensation for the poor level of service offered – which I hadn’t even noticed: used to Italian, Polish and British standards, I don’t have high expectations. Actually, does this extension-compensation principle apply to the rest of the EU? I should be entitled to a few years free transport in Milan and in the West Midlands…
In fact the disservice (again over the last few weeks due to snow) was limited to the S-Bahn, the bit which has been privatised (to Deutsche Bahn), while municipal buses, tramways and U-Bahn are perfect. Just another lesson on privatisation and efficiency…
German newspapers are as thick and heavy as the British ones, but have much less advertising and much more to read. They are also more old-fashion: mostly broadsheet, with a focus on main news rather than investigative journalism or comment, and rather similar titles to each others and to the previous night TV news. I wonder if they can survive for long in this way in the internet era. For a three-month stay, I came to enjoy their rather old style, especially when reading them in the already old-style decadent setting of Berlin’s cafés, and their international coverage is impressive (for British newspapers, foreign news mostly means “US+Commonwealth+British tourists abroad”, and for Italian newspapers, it mostly means “what the world says of Italy”). Serious national papers are also more numerous than in any other EU country (stricter antitrust laws than in UK or Italy), which must be good for democracy.
While the main German papers are from West Germany, Berlin has its good share of serious papers: Tagesspiegel, Berliner Morgenpost, Berliner Zeitung. Good local news pages across Germany may partly explain a new wave of local-issues collective action across the country. I became affectionate to the Berliner Zeitung, originally from East Berlin, left-of-centre, similar look to the serious Zürcher Zeitung but lighter, proving that you can write short but non-nonsense articles, and devote much space to culture (it collaborates with the Frankfurter Rundschau). But the best Berlin’s paper is Tageszeitung, or taz, originally from the New Left and Kreuzberg’s occupied houses, now a bit too close to the Greens but still with excellent writing. And Berlin even has two other newspapers more to the Left: the former-SED Neues Deutschland and the former FDJ (DDR Youth) Junge Welt. Both a bit too propaganda-like to my taste, but with interesting information on union issues.
The problem is the excess of choice, source of dilemmas and regrets as you will miss 99.9% of the 3 thick pages of events published in the newspapers everyday. Cabaret in French, opera in Italian, talks in English, songs in Russian… Large choice of international, original language films, even if the Hollywood blockbusters are (deservedly) dubbed. The best concert hall and the best philharmonic orchestra in the world (with a new director from Birmingham, how little the world is).
And the museums. I have an ambivalent attitude to the museums. When I first visit places, they are never a priority (I confess to have seen no New York museum after three stays there): I have so many art books at home that the added value of seeing the original after the reproduction is marginal, in comparison to the irrepleceable and irreproduceable value of experiencing new quarters, views, foods; and most museums are just too big and crowded to provide a pleasant experience when visited in a hurry. But if I stay in a place for longer, and I can find the right time (Monday 9am, Tuesday 9pm…) to go, I love them and can’t understand how the locals can ignore their offerings, maybe because they have already seen them 20 years ago. Berlin is phenomenal in this regard. The Museumsinsel is being modernised and the ‘new’ Neues Museum and Bodemuseum are spectacular, with the right light for each individual work. The Zeughaus and the Judisches Museum are as instructive and absorbing as the best history books. On the Freie Universität campus, just out of the office for my lunch breaks, there are the Dahlem ethnographic and Asian museums, excellent compensations for an otherwise Eurocentric city. The Hamburger Bahnhof hosts amazing contemporary exhibitions in an exceptionally spacious setting. But my old favourite is still the Berggruen Sammlung – now, after his death, Berggruen Museum. A relatively small museum in a homely setting, with only masterpieces from Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Giacometti, individually chosen with a strong personal touch by Berggruen himself while he was helping Picasso & Co to sell (what a difficult job): I leave it as happy as after having seen old friends, not museum pieces.
December 16, 2010
Neukölln, in South Berlin, has been elevated to the status of the most infamous neighbourhood of German politics by Thilo Sarrazin. The (ex)socialdemocratic Bundesbank board member, in his xenophobic, eugenetics bestseller “Deutschland schaffts sich ab”, devoted a long part to Neukölln as a dangerous ghetto demonstrating the impossibility of integrating Turks, and the necessity of hard “help less, ask more” policies towards immigrants. He largely quotes is party-comrade Buschkowsky, mayor of Neukölln who had warned about the failures of multiculturalism, in contrast to the equally socialdemocratic, but more politically correct and inclusive Berlin’s gay president Klaus Wowereit, keen on developing a ‘diversity-friendly’ image for the capital.
But if you go to Neukölln expecting some thrilling emotions, to see flying knives, masked terrorists or anything of the like, you will be bitterly disappointed. Coming from the city centre, when entering Neukölln you actually first go through the trendiest part of today’s Berlin (“Kreuzkölln”, or crossing between gentrified-Kreuzberg and Neukölln): here are the most fashionable clubs, and in a grid of pleasant, leafy streets there is a variety of cafés, ethnic delicatessen, art shops and bookshops – often combined in the same outlet. At Hermannplatz the more ethnic part of Neukölln starts, and the 20%-plus unemployment is reflected in the poorest standard of shops and bars. But still, coming from the West Midlands and being familiar with its 80%-Asian neighbourhoods (Sparkbrook), I wonder how they can call this heterogeneous mix of Arabs, Turks, blacks, eastern Europeans, South Europeans and, indeed, Germans, a “ghetto”. The schools of the area had gained a bad reputation of segregation, failure, drop out and violence – but over recent years they have shown mark improvements with a series of pragmatic integration policies such as longer school hours (despite his sometimes alarmist tones, on pragmatic grounds Buschkowsky is certainly capable and widely appreciated). Social housing is sometimes controversial (i.e. the high towers Gropiusstadt, setting of Christiane F.'s "Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo"), but better than certain British council estates or French HLM. Green areas are pleasant and there are popular playgrounds with spontaneous multi-ethnic social activity, but are now threatened by developers: who should be blamed then if integration fails? The nearby recently closed historic airport of Tempelhof, now a huge park, offers opportunites of regeneration - or speculation.
Neukölln main street is Karl-Marx Straße, and in the middle of it, behind a pleasant courtyard, is hidden a surviving, stylish XIX-Century Ballroom, now turned into café, cultural centre and theatre, Heimathafen. The café Rix is in old Berlinese style but mixes German with Middle-Eastern food. The theatre is austere, as it receives no public funding, but its program exciting. I went to "Arabqueen", directed by Nicole Oder, loosely based on the recent novel on forced marriage “Arabqueen oder der Geschmack der Freiheit” by the young feminist writer and journalist of Turkish origins Günner Yasemin Balci. German literature is currently being reinvigorated by a lively generation of writers with immigration background: four of the six authors, including the winner, of this year Deutscher Buchpreis have non-German origins. In Arabqueen, just three actresses (Tanya Erartsin, Inka Löwendorf, Sascha Ö.Soydan) play a dozen parts, sometimes changing role during the same scene: the two sisters Fatme and Mariam, their mother, their Paris-raised hippy friend Lena, a few other funny local characters and, with great effect, the Middle-Eastern macho-acting boys. Thanks to their outstanding acting skills, this multiple interpretation has the effect of highlighting the complex, contrasted variety of humanity in Neukölln – starting from the ambivalence of the headscarf. The only character who never appears on stage, despite being heavily felt, is the tyrannic, double-standard moral father, who interrupts Fatme’s flirting and imposes a forced marriage.
The play is very well received, by critics and by the audience, as a revival of "Volkstheater", people’s theatre’: close representation of local everyday working-class life, by local actresses, with no political tones but still a political message. But after so much funny and moving theatre, once the lights on, with everybody clapping, it was impossible not to notice that, in the middle of Neukölln, Turks made just about 10% of the audience (although a good thing with Turks is that you can’t always tell them apart…). Which is better than in many other cases of ‘ethnic arts’ (i.e. blues music in Chicago, where the only blacks are unavoidably the performers), but reminds that cultural segregation is a reality.
December 15, 2010
Allegria!!! and "the winner is" are the unfogettable exclamations of Mike Bongiorno, a popular TV anchorman who paved the road to Berlusconi and, in a way, was his prophet.
Italy is in a state of chaos and riots, inside and outside Parliament, but the situation is I think quite clear.
First clear lesson: I do hope this is the end of the myth of Fini as a great politician and tactician. Let’s remember his story. He became leader of the fascist MSI by co-optation from above, selected and nominated by the old man of Italian neofascism Almirante (co-organiser of the deportation of the Jews under the Repubblica di Saló) who (him, not Fini) had understood the MSI needed, to grow, a leader who was not biographically associated to historical fascism. He was even struggling to keep the leadership of that little party (he was ousted for a while in 1989-90) when, suddenly and by pure chance, he was nearly elected mayor of Rome in 1993 – but only because all conservative and centrist parties had dissolved in the corruption scandals; in other words, he conquered dominance of the centre-right only because of the absence of competition (football similitude: Inter’s titles in 2006-08). In the new role, he overnight rejected fascism and embraced democracy (just like changing socks) and entered a joint venture with Berlusconi: Gianfranco had the party structure and political expertise, Silvio had the cash. In 1995 and 1996, he had two opportunities to get rid of Berlusconi, who was defeated, disillusioned, ill, and had more than one foot in jail; but he wasted his opportunities and he spent the following 14 years in bitterness (think Gordon Brown), waiting for a new chance. When this emerged last summer, his lack of intelligence led to five months of byzantine tactics and the catastrophic failure to make his sums in yesterday’s vote. The vote was a surprise only to him (for once, I had predicted right in the blog of the 30th of July): turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
The opposition’s PD and Fini himself are now in a state of denial, pretending Berlusconi did not win, because his majority is of just three votes. Well, the PD did not say this when it was Prodi, in 2006-08, to have a majority of three; and even outside of Italy, there are plenty of governments with paper-thin majorities: Major 1992-97, Kohl 1994-98, most recent Spanish governments… and it is more than likely that some more turkeys will go back to Silvio’s hen house, boosting his majority to more confortable levels.
One note on the most distressing turkey, whose surprise vote for Silvio caused a riot in the Chamber: Catia Polidori. Her family business is CEPU, a large private university-tuition company that in other countries would be called plagiarism wholesale, an e-bay for essays and dissertations (its testimonials are football stars, with the implicit message: if they can get degrees with CEPU, anybody can). Berlusconi's government allowed CEPU to create an open university (e-campus), entitled to sell legal degrees. And she awarded Berlusconi her vote of confidence - how lovely. By the way, just like Berlusconism is not much different from Murdochism, CEPU is not much different from the university plans of the new UK government (and of some vice-chancellors). And Berlusconism as a regime is much more than his person, meaning that even if he died tomorrow, we are not guaranteed anything better.
All this leaves the most depressing conclusion on the state of the Partito Democratico, Italian’s so-called opposition. It spent five months sitting in the salivating adoration of saviour Fini, instead of doing any politics. It was not even awaken by the fact that in near-all local primary elections for the selection of mayoral candidates, the party nominees were defeated by independents (last in Milan). In the meanwhile, the absence from Parliament of any leftwing party (for the first time since 1946), and the Left's lack of at least a ‘right of tribune’, means that radical opposition takes the form of street riots…
December 11, 2010
The Hamburger Bahnhof, a derelict station in no man’s land at the times of the Wall, claims now to be the biggest contemporary art museum in Europe – at least in the narrow sense of art from 1960 (Museum für Gegenwart, i.e. Museum of the Present). Its size allows it to currently host the unique exhibition by Carsten Höller, “Soma”.
Soma is the miraculous drink allowing enlightenment and access to the divine sphere in the Ringveda, the oldest Hindu scripture (and, from the 2nd millennium BC, arguably the oldest surviving religious scripture overall). As it happens after so much time, nobody remembers the nature of this Soma, but since the XIX century philologists, scientists and ethnologists have converged over the hypothesis that the decisive ingredient was the fly amanita mushroom. Wait: the fly amanita mushroom is poisonous, so how could they drink its extract? Simple, by filtering – and the most likely way the Central Asian tribes of 4,000 years ago could filter it is through the kidneys of their fellow reindeer, who, themselves, are keen fly amanita eaters. Reindeer urine (possibly with some taste corrector) should have been the basis of Soma and the key to knowledge and to the divine sphere.
This is hitherto just speculative hypothesis. Carsten Höller, who has a Habilitation (second PhD) in agriculture sciences and whose artistic work focuses on the relation between science and art, as well as on human interactions (e.g. the huge “Test Site” in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in 2006), proposes now an experiment. The Hamburger Bahnhof is split into two symmetric parts. In each there are six reindeer, who are fed large amount of (frozen) fly amanita. Their urine is collected and stored. In each half there are then three species of experiment animals: twelve canaries, four mice and two flies. Over weeks, it can be observed whether the animals on one side start behaving differently: if they drink Soma, will they achieve enlightenment? As science requires, the experiment is double-blind: the animals are not told whether they are fed Soma or just some placebo. Nor are the visitors, as they become, in their interactions, part of the experiment: we do not know which group (if at all!) is fed Soma, and which one is there just for control.
When it starts becoming a bit extravagant is with the double bed in the middle of the hall: here, for just €1,000/night, it is possible to spend the night and observe, undisturbed by other humans, whether maybe the animals achieve the enlightenment when the lights are off and the museum is closed (unfortunately, it is already fully booked until the end of the exhibition).
There’s no actual experimenting: nobody takes any note, and the number of animals is too small as a sample. An experiment is turned into artistic experience and scientific observation into aesthetic observation (the lucky Germans as usual have two words for “observing”: betrachten and beobachten).
In the process, on a conceptual level the visit raises a number of questions as to the impossible communication between science and religion, as to the role of art between the two, and as to the possibility of objective observation. Can humans make scientific experiments on the deepest aspects of humanity? Well, as a social scientist, I found there enough to short-circuit positivists and critical realists.
On the human visitors, the experiment seems to me successful: after overcoming the initial scepticism and incredulity, and once got used to the smell (Soma must have been an acquired taste), visitors spend hours observing the animals and trying to guess which ones are enlightened. Much is pondered about the fact that one of the two canary cages has started weighting more than the other: is it because enlightened birds become lighter? or heavier? A pseudo-scientific idea, in its artistic form, inspires metaphysical questioning.
A spectacular and exhilarating creation, as contemporary art can do. Only in Berlin, until the 6th February 2011. After then, the reindeer will go back to their native Sweden.
December 10, 2010
Writing about web page /guglielmomeardi/entry/marathon_football_in/
Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view
I returned to the An der Alten Försterei stadion on Monday, intrigued by the fans contestation of the SkyTV-induced Monday schedules, and by the experience of football as a winter sport. The weather has been near-polar for a few days, and last Thursday, just across the border, on a white pitch and with -16C Lech Poznan eliminated Juventus from the Europa League (two cheers, one for Poznan, where I went on my first student exchange in 1989, and one for the detested Vecchia Signora).
Winter prevailed and most fans protested by staying home. Only 10,898 other people were as mad as me. The temperature touched -9 and I appreciated, again, the standing stalls: they allow fans to adopt the penguins surviving strategy (see "March of the Penguins"), forming a thick crowd to mutually protect from the freezing wind, with a slow circular movement whereby fans at the outer margins rotate slowly, as they periodically go to refill their glasses with Glühwein (another great thing of German stadions). The match was horrible, FC Union lost, but still the athmosphere in this stadion is better than at the Olympiastadion, where the huge size and empty spaces, the distance from the pitch (it's a stadion for atheltics, not football), and the rightwing Hertha supporters made it cold even without winter.